In the United States, cities have consistently been associated with high concentrations of crime when compared to suburban or rural areas. According to Edward Glaeser, the probability of being victimized by criminal activity in areas with populations greater than one million is 21.7% while the probability in areas with under 10,000 people is only 9.4%. Demographic differences between these areas have been pronounced since World War II, and help explain the dramatic disparity between crime rates. Two major demographic changes cities have experienced recently are “white flight” migration to the suburbs leaving a lower class concentration in the cities and international immigration largely to urban areas. Middle class suburban migration and international immigration have directly affected crime rates in urban areas, but they have also led to additional demographic changes including differences in age and household composition, which have further impacted crime rates in cities.
“White flight” suburban migration occurred after the Second World War and left a disproportionately high concentration of poverty and subsequent crime in the cities. As the middle class left the cities, their tax dollars left as well, causing urban policing to be poorly funded. With an inferior police force, the already desperate urban population faces fewer consequences to criminal activity, resulting in a dramatic increase in crime. In addition, money to aid this urban problem is typically allocated to the state, which, in turn, is given to suburbs to further improve policing there. During the 1980’s when crime reached a peak as cocaine grew in popularity, President Reagan fought this trend in crime with increased funding to the state, which supported the suburbs. Even some lower class migration to the suburbs introduced higher concentrations of crime because lower class migrants tend to leave to escape the crime. Glaeser asserts, “poorer individuals fleeing cities are more likely to cite crime as their primary reason for flight.” However, when “white flight” has led to an African American majority within the city as with Atlanta, Washington D.C., and Birmingham, crime can decline to some extent. These communities tend to elect African American mayors who appoint African American police chiefs and police forces. According to the racial threat hypothesis, this can lead to a decrease in crime as the population is more comfortable with its law enforcement as well as a decrease in police shootings as the police is more comfortable with its city.
Immigration, however, brings a population that is largely uninvolved with police activity to cities and, thus increases urban crime rates. Attracted by the economic diversity, low-wage labor opportunities, and social networking crated by population concentration, immigrants flock to cities, and have become largely responsible for the curbing of urban population decline in some areas. Unfortunately, this immigrant population is largely Spanish-speaking or uneducated Latino immigrants. According to Chicago studies conducted by Wesley Skogan, language barrier and lack of education are factors closely tied with criminal activities in cities. Throughout the 1990’s Latinos observed an increase in crime in their Chicago communities while White and African American communities reported a general decrease over the decade. Within these Latino communities, Spanish-speaking households and uneducated households reported the highest incidents of crime. The influx of undocumented immigrants aids this trend as they often speak Spanish or are less educated. Criminal activity is common amongst these immigrants because they have few resources and avoid police to escape problems concerning their legal status. Some cities such as Houston have noticed this issue and have tried to combat it by establishing themselves as sanctuary cities that do not enforce immigration laws. This fosters better relationships between the police and the immigrant population.
While both suburban migration and immigration have directly led to increased crime, they have also caused a change in both the age and the household composition amongst urban populations, yielding further increases in criminal activity. The United States has experienced a general graying of the population that is only curbed by the influx of young immigrants. The populations of immigrants that have flocked to cities tends to be relatively young. This helps the aging problem for cities, but it also leads to a disproportionately high crime rate in urban areas. The majority of crime in this country is committed by the youth. The average age to commit a robbery is 17 years and the average age to murder is between 19 and 20. Along with youth, crime also tends towards families with female-headed households. According to Edward Glaeser, 50% of urban crime can be attributed to the increased concentration of these households. According to the Economist, middle class suburban migration and the subsequent poverty concentration in cities have led to urban women willing to bear children of but not marry unemployed men. In addition, problems of immigration can lead to broken families when they arrive in the United States. Both of these factors increase the percent of households headed by females and consequently increase the crime rate of cities.
While cities have seen a dramatic increase in crime since World War II through suburban migration, international immigration, and subsequent changes of age and household composition, the past decade brought a slight decline in criminal activity. This decrease can be attributed to urban reforms, and many of these reforms have affected city demographics. Gentrification policies such as development of universities and middle class housing have led to a return of the middle class to urban areas. Cities have also right-sized to become more manageable. Policies entice populations to move outside the cities, and groups including immigrant communities have begun settling in the suburbs. With both of these trends reversed to some degree, crime in cities has subsided, but it remains much more prominent than crime in outlying areas.